As Red Means Run heads into the homestretch, Virgil Cain smiles as he describes himself as "old school" to the woman selling him a pass to a campground in the Catskills. She's puzzled that he's hiking into a hardwood forest in a downpour without a backpack or any rain gear. When she smiles back at him, it's "as if he were an old geezer in a diner with soup on his chin."
Because he's a fugitive, he hasn't given her his name, but if he had, it's unlikely she would say, "Oh, like the guy in that song by the Band, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."
Cain and the park ticket-seller were toddlers when the Band was in its heyday, but he inhabits the America of Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson, not hers. He can make more sense of the music they played than anything he hears on the radio now. He doesn't own a cellphone and can't work a computer, but there's nothing he can't do to keep a farm running or to keep a really dumb cop from recapturing and locking him up for murders he didn't commit before he uncovers the real killer.
Speaking to a woman nearer his own age and tastes, who really wants to know why he's both a farmer and a fugitive, Cain provides a half-answer: "I just stumbled into this, trying to help a friend, but the truth of the matter is, I like being a farmer. … I'm not good with abstracts. When I'm working, I need to see that I've accomplished something."
She is left to work out for herself that his troubles with the law come from what Kirstie, his dead wife, called his "detachment from the conventional." Cain is clever, but he's also capable of stupid behaviour – as Kirstie also said, he's "half a bubble off plumb," which makes him as unpredictable and entertaining as those Elmore Leonard characters who find mostly wrong ways of doing the right thing.
Cain doesn't say much, but his silences aren't posturing: He's a genuinely quiet man, a Canadian from Quebec's Eastern Townships who was a catcher for the Toledo Mud Hens before he served a stretch in prison, turned to farm work and married the farmer's daughter. As readers of Brad Smith's four earlier, excellent crime novels (including All Hat and Big Man Coming Down the Road) know, this author never requires his central characters to do anything their creator – a multiskilled former railway worker, bartender, horse handler and active handyman – isn't capable of doing himself.
Cain becomes the prime suspect in two of the three murders (this is an old-school mystery) because Kirstie died while recording an album of Neil Young covers. Young's fans will recognize "red means run" as a fragment from Powderfinger, and will be left wondering what clues its album, Rust Never Sleeps, might hold to the further misadventures of Virgil Cain in Ulster County, New York, a locale socially, economically and geographically diverse enough to sustain a long-running series about an accidental sleuth.
Contributing reviewer T.F. Rigelhof's most recent book is Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better and the Best Canadian Novels Since 1984.